Moralism is the teaching (doctrine) that God approves (accepts or justifies) of us either because we have cooperated with his grace (semi-Pelagianism) or because we have kept the law without his help (Pelagianism). According to moralism God approves of us because of what we are inherently, intrinsically not because of what Christ has done for us (obeyed, died, been raised) and certainly not because of the imputation (reckoning) to believers of what Christ has done but because of what he has wrought in us by grace and cooperation with grace.
In the history of Christianity, beginning with the Ebionites, Jewish Christians that taught the necessity of observing the Mosaic law in order to be accepted by God, there have always been moralists in the church. Indeed, in the medieval period, moralism became the majority view in the church. The Reformation was a rejection of moralism in favor of the gospel of God’s grace toward the unrighteous. Nevertheless, moralism persisted in the Anabaptist movement, in Romanism, and among ostensible evangelicals such as Andreas Osiander and others. In the seventeenth century moralism returned in the Arminian/Remonstrant movement, in the Socinian movement, and appeared most subtly in Reformed circles in the teaching of Richard Baxter (whom many Reformed folk today hail unqualifiedly as a hero but whose moralism John Owen excoriated) and in the neonomian movement in the 18th century in Scotland. It is still with us in the self-described Federal Vision movement.
In Reformed circles moralism often persists undetected because it begins by sounding orthodox but like the scorpion the sting is in the tail. Pay close attention to this catechism and see how well you do at playing the Reformed version of Where’s Wally?*
Q: What is justification?
A: Justification is God’s initial declaration of righteousness upon those who trust in Christ, live in the grace of baptism, and obey the gospel.
Q: What is faith?
A: Faith is repentance, trust in Christ, and faithfulness.
Q: What is repentance?
Q: What is the gospel?
A: The gospel is that everyone who believes and cooperates with grace will be justified.
Q: What is grace?
A: A free, unmerited gift that God gives to all the faithful members of the covenant.
Q: What is the covenant?
A: It is God’s unconditional, free promise that if we obey his gospel and cooperate with grace we will be justified.
Q: What is God’s law?
A: God’s law is his moral will revealed in creation, at Sinai, i.e., the gospel.
Q: What is the distinction between law and gospel?
A: It is the distinction between the old law and the new.
Q: What is regeneration?
A: Regeneration is the new life conferred upon those who are baptized and thereby united to Christ, elected, justified, adopted, and who continue in that grace.
Q. What is baptism?
A: Baptism is that promise to the children of believers and to adult converts and the sacrament whereby we are elected, united to Christ, justified, and adopted if we continue in grace.
Q: What is the Lord’s Supper?
A: That sacrament whereby God renews his covenant to save those who believe and cooperate with the grace given in baptism
Q: Who should come to the table of the Lord?
A: All baptized persons
Q: What is perseverance of the saints?
A: Perseverance is cooperation by the baptized with the grace given them in baptism and the supper unto final justification.
Q: Can a person lose his salvation?
A: No one can lose their salvation unless they fail to cooperate sufficiently with the grace of baptism.
Q: What is final justification?
A: God’s recognition of the inherent, intrinsic Spirit-wrought sanctity and righteousness by grace and cooperation with grace in those only who have trusted in Christ and have kept their part of the covenant.
*That’s the UK version of Where’s Waldo?